Gracie Academy (BJJ), Rener Gracie, Torrance, CA, USA - 14/06/2013
Torrance has a special place in the history of international Brazilian jiu jitsu, because it is where the expansion truly began. It was not the first place on US soil to teach BJJ, but the Gracie Academy was undeniably the most important school in the initial growth of the art outside of Brazil. It was therefore really cool to finally walk through those doors and see all that history staring right back at me.
This is a building well aware of its significance, most obviously in the small Gracie Museum filled with artefacts from jiu jitsu's past. There are lots of tributes to Helio, as you would expect, newspaper clippings from the heyday of vale tudo and old gis from the middle of the last century. I was reminded once again that it would be extremely useful to read Portuguese: I've been through the Pimsleur course, but need to start practicing in some methodical way, perhaps by finally tackling that Carlos Gracie biography sitting on my bookshelf.
The museum display I found most interesting was the case containing original logbooks from the first year the Torrance Academy was operating, in 1989. I recognised several of the names as early US pioneers, like Chris Haueter, Bob Bass and Chris Saunders. Walking along the corridor, your route is lined with magazine covers depicting the jiu jitsu explosion ushered in by Rorion and his relatives, until eventually you catch sight of those famous green mats.
My guide was Ben, whose articulate online presence has provided a much-needed perspective on the Gracie Academy, posting as bjh13. I have been impressed with how he has conducted himself in places like Sherdog and reddit, always ready to offer up a rational argument and solid points. He manages to be pro-Gracie Academy without the marketing spiel, therefore playing a central role in moderating the excessive vitriol that often gets directed at Rorion and his sons.
The reason I was at the Academy was to meet one of those sons, Rener Gracie. Ben set up the interview and also drove me there: I can't thank him enough for all his help. Rener was teaching a private lesson when we arrived and invited us to watch the tail end, as he did some light sparring with his student. He was teaching a celebrity, but as the celebrity in question was from American Football, I wasn't familiar with him. Rener mentioned his name later: Tamba Hali, who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. Sounds like he has an interesting story, judging by his Wikipedia profile. I didn't get to talk to him much, but seemed like a nice guy and clearly a talented athlete (Update July 2013: Hali features in his own episode of The Gracie Way webseries, here.)
Right after that private with Hali, we got into the interview, spending about fifty minutes discussing history and teaching methodology. It also meant I had my first in-person encounter with Rener's infamous sales patter, a polished piece of marketing machinery. Rorion himself briefly popped his head round the door, which was a bit of a shock. Despite his immense contributions to jiu jitsu, Rorion does not put on any airs and graces.
Update 2016: The interview is now up as a podcast.
It was then time for class, which was a lot less formal than you might expect. In fact, I would say it is one of the least formal classes I've been to. There was no bowing I can recall and I just jumped in during the warm-up. This wasn't the typical run around the room, face inwards, sit-ups and the like. Instead, Rener ran through several body movements. The main one I remember is swinging one leg slowly backwards, carefully balancing and bending forwards until your hands touch the floor. You then reverse direction, bringing the same leg forward and hugging that knee in towards your chest.
The class was part of the Master Cycle, which is what students at the Academy learn after Gracie Combatives. There was no mention of self defence: techniques were all well-taught and sparring felt just as challenging as anywhere else. The class format and content felt much the same as any other class I've been to elsewhere in the UK and US, if more structured and better resourced than most academies.
Ben told me that Rener has been concentrating on mount for the last two months (which is awesome: I wish more schools would focus on a single position for that long). Today, Rener wanted to share how to transition from mount to knee on belly. From mount, fishtail your leg over and move into knee on belly, then to switch to the other side, put both knees on their ribs , crossing your feet over and shifting to knee on belly in the opposite direction.
The drills continued in that vein, building onto that initial movement with another motion. If they turn towards you while you are in knee on belly, spin towards their head, moving directly into technical mount (the picture shows Xande doing it from mount rather than knee on belly, but gives you an idea of which position I'm talking about). Although I may have mixed up the direction: I got slightly confused when drilling at one point, probably because Rener was staring at me. ;)
Rener increased the complexity for the next stage, where he developed the sequence into taking the back. From that technical mount position (if they are blocking tightly with their knee, you can try shifting up their back then pushing your foot through), lock up the gift wrap, then roll to take the back. Switch your grips to go for the choke, which will normally make them reach with their free hand to pull on your forearm. Once that arm starts moving, bring your leg over the top and trap it, giving you free rein to attack. Push on the head and go for the armbar as they try to move their other arm. Again, I may have missed some details there.
Finally, from your knee on belly position, you can move into an armbar. Push their near side hand down to the mat. That should encourage them to turn towards the hand, because they don't want you to isolate it and attack. Disengage your knee to shift into side control, keeping them under pressure by driving all your weight through your chest, pressing just behind their shoulder. Switch your grips to gift wrap their other hand, grabbing your own wrist to secure a figure-four.
Lever up your non-gift wrapping arm to raise their elbow, making it even harder for them to turn (this was a tip from Rener's black belt demonstration partner Jordan, son of the well-known poster simply called '12' on the Underground. He's clearly a good instructor who has learned the methodology, judging by his helpful technical advice when he walked over to Ben and I). Bring your knees in, pulling your partner in tight.
The knee nearest their legs slides higher up their back, in order to act as a pivot for swinging your other leg over their head and straight into a sort of s-mount, with the foot towards their hip. From here you're set-up to attempt the armbar. In order to get that swinging motion, Rener quickly had us all do a drill similar to Nic Gregoriades' 'shin box' from last year, swinging the leg into place from the knees, then returning to the knees to repeat, all without using the hands.
Sparring reminded me initially of classes I've taught myself, strangely, as they also kicked off with no submissions, just maintaining, escaping and sweeping. Sticking with the positional theme, we began in mount every time. Each round was six minutes, starting off with Ben. Prior to training I had been interested to see just how relaxed sparring was going to be, given the encouragement to 'keep it playful' (to use Ryron's terminology) and the lack of emphasis on competition. Ben's approach fit that mould, staying calm and relaxed.
That's markedly different from most new blue belts, particularly when I hold mount on them: they tend to buck wildly to throw me off, especially as they are invariably bigger. Ben is bigger too, but remained thoughtful and technical. I had a go at knee on belly, in an effort to practice the techniques we just learned. That's the kind of pace I enjoy, where it is possible to focus on technique because neither person is viewing it as some kind of fight to the death.
Melissa, another blue belt, was a little more energetic. She tried to stand up as soon as we moved to guard, driving forwards. I as usual attempted to go for the windscreen wiper sweep (picture on the left: that sweep has various names), but without much success. That was also the case with Ben, who did a good job of using the kneeling break repeatedly, making the windscreen wiper sweep difficult. I tried to do the simple response from Henry Akins in that situation, where I think he just shifts to the other side of their knee, but I need to rewatch the Sandy Hook seminar video to double-check the details.
Rener then beckoned me over for a roll. I wasn't surprised to see him tuck a hand into his belt or when I noticed a camera: there have been a few "Rener spars purple belt with both hands tied" videos bouncing around the internet. In this case, I think he was injured rather than simply handicapping himself, but either way, it's a good training approach when there is a large skill disparity. I'm a mediocre purple belt, while Rener is a high level black belt. He would still be able to beat me up even if both hands and feet were tied.
I took my usual passive approach, interested to see what he did: I don't get to spar black belts very often. Moving to my favoured running escape, he drove his knee across my trailing leg, which I think is the same method Sahid uses to smash that defence. The lack of a hand didn't stop him from easily submitting me (I remember an armbar, there were probably a few others).
That also reminded me to review my triangle defence. I tend to default to driving their knee to the mat and trying to open up space that way, but often get stuck there, at best getting into a war of attrition. There's also the stepping over the head method I occasionally attempt, though I think last time I did that I just got armbarred instead. ;)
For my final roll, Rener put me with one of the purple belts (I think his name was Alex, but I'm not sure). He started off light, letting me get position. Once he got into a dominant position, he upped the pace, to the point where it felt like sparring any other competitive higher belt. I was being defensive, spending a good chunk of the roll with my back taken.
At this point there was a revealing example of the Gracie Academy's relaxed and positive vibe. Alex had a rear naked choke almost locked, which I was defending (poorly) with my chin and arm. In some schools, you would get your jaw crushed, with the RNC choke applied directly to your face. Fortunately that did not happen here, as instead Alex took his time and waited to transition to a clean technique. Right as I thought I was slipping free, I suddenly found myself inside a head and arm triangle, smoothly set-up by Alex.
Training at the Academy and speaking to Rener was a cool experience. I still have the same reservations as before, but I now also know first-hand that (at least judging by that one class) training at the Gracie Academy is no different than training anywhere else. You're going to learn the same kind of techniques and get the same experience sparring. Hopefully I'll be able to check out a Gracie Combatives class some day, or something like the 'Reflex Development' class, as I would guess those are both less typical.
Update August 2013: The first part of the interview is now up on the Jiu Jitsu Style website, here. Part Two will be appearing in Issue #16 of the magazine.
Thanks again to Ben for not only driving me to the Academy and setting up the interview, but then taking me to the Greyhound station, letting me use his phone to contact my friend in San Diego to let him know I would be late, then drive me back to the Greyhound and double-check everything was ok. He even agreed to collect several packages for me at his home. I'd also like to thank Dave Kim, who waited patiently in San Diego without complaint, despite my arrival four hours later than expected. Cheers Dave!
Unfortunately I was in a hurry after training (as it turned out I didn't need to be, seeing as the bus was cancelled, resulting in a two hour wait) so didn't get to take any pictures. Bleh. Next time! Though that did at least help me remember to get pictures at the next two places I trained, Fabio Santos BJJ and the University of Jiu Jitsu, both in San Diego. As with Texas last year, I'll be sticking all the California training under the same label, with a general write-up of the whole trip here. :)